That Was No Accident. My Martini Told Me So.

New research on alcohol and aggression finds intoxicated people are more likely to believe an ambiguous act is intentional.
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New research on alcohol and aggression finds intoxicated people are more likely to believe an ambiguous act is intentional.

So you’re sitting at a bar, and some guy shoves your arm as he walks past, causing you to spill your cocktail. You can respond in one of two ways: Shrug it off and order another, or get angry, exchange heated words and risk escalating a minor incident into a violent confrontation.

The key factor in making that choice is how you view the incident: Was it an unfortunate accident or a deliberate provocation? It turns out your answer to that question depends largely on whether you’re on your first drink, or your fourth.

That’s the conclusion of a French study just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. It reports intoxicated people are more likely to assume an ambiguous act is intentional rather than accidental.

“This finding helps explain why alcohol increases aggression,” writes the researchers, led by psychologist Laurent Begue of the University of Grenoble.

Begue and his colleagues conducted an experiment on 92 French men between the ages of 20 and 46. They were recruited, via newspaper advertisements, to participate in a “taste-test study.” All sampled a grapefruit juice and grenadine cocktail; for half, the drink was spiked with two ounces of pure alcohol.

The participants then read 50 sentences describing simple actions. Fifteen of the actions were clearly done on purpose (“She looked for her keys”); 15 were obviously random (“She tripped on the jump rope”): and 20 could have been either (“He deleted the mail”). For each sentence, they were instructed to indicate whether they thought the action was intentional or accidental.

“Intoxicated participants perceived more actions to be intentional than did sober participants,” the researchers report. While some were told their drinks contained alcohol and others were not, this information had no significant impact on the results.

So what’s the link between imbibing and ascribing blame?

Recent research suggests that adults have a default explanatory bias to interpret all acts as intentional,” Begue and his colleagues write. According to this line of thinking, our initial impulse in evaluating a situation is to assume it’s the result of intentional behavior. It requires additional mental processing to factor in the possibility that the outcome was the result of an accident.

“The key to avoiding the intentionality bias is to inhibit the inclination to make intentional attributions when explaining the behavior of another person,” the researchers write. “To avoid this bias, one must pay close attention to, and accurately process, subtle external factors.”

Intoxication not only impairs this ability, it also “has the myopic effect of drawing attention to more salient internal factors,” such as, say, your own anger or frustration. “Alcohol consumption,” the researchers conclude, “contributes to a hostile interpretation of events, and therefore to aggression.”

After a certain number of drinks, there are no perceived accidents — just perceived slights. So steer clear of the man with a beer in his hand: There’s a strong chance he also has a chip on his shoulder.